On the plains of western Zambia, the annual rains and flooding of the Zambezi River are traditionally seen as a life-affirming event, heralding prosperity. The water makes the lowlands more fertile for grazing livestock and cultivating crops, and its arrival was a time of ritual celebration.
But in the past two years, the rains have arrived much earlier than usual. The floodwaters have risen to cover even the high ground to which the villagers usually retreat. The result has been hunger, disease, and the loss of hard-earned possessions.
In April 2009 the Liywalii family had just returned to the village of Liyoyelo after an absence of four months. The floodwater had sloughed away the clay walls of their house up to waist height, leaving just the bare ribs of reeds and wooden poles. In a corner of the house an ancient radio lies coated with a thick layer of mud.
‘In December the rains came very fast. Within 12 hours the whole yard was flooded. This is the first time we have ever seen that,’ says Liywalii Liywalii. ‘Our house was completely destroyed. Our maize crop is gone and we lost our blankets and clothes because we had to leave so quickly. The wind blew away the zinc from the roof. I will have to save up to buy more.’
His wife Mukelabai, 25, is still stunned as she looks at what remains of her home. ‘We put all our children in the canoe and paddled about 25km. We could not save our crops, so we have no food. We are eating nothing.’
The family eats the fish that Liywalii catches each day, but it is not enough to feed their three children. This is the second year in a row that the water has risen so high. But moving away permanently is not an option, says Mukelabai. ‘This is our land, this is our ancestral village.’
Janet Ajojo from Amuria district in Uganda suffered from a huge and unprecedented flood in late 2007.
Her experience was typical of many. She says: ‘We grew cow peas, sweet potatoes, millet, cassava, green gram, sorghum, ground nuts, and sesame. But our plots were flooded; we lost all of our crops. Even our compound was flooded and we couldn’t dry what little we managed to rescue. We just felt helpless, our houses collapsed, we were soaked. We took refuge in a primary school.’
Janet and her household, a total of 10 people, received 50kg of maize dropped by helicopter. But for some six months, the food that they have depended upon has been termites.
She says: ‘We take spear grass and put it in the ants’ nest and pull it out. If you get two cupfuls of ants, lucky you! Not everyone can stomach them. We sell some termites and buy beans with the money.’
The family were making bricks – the men loading bricks, the women fetching water – to earn money to buy enough seeds to sow in the hope of a good rainy season. Asked what she expects if the floods come again she replies: ‘Just death.’
When hit by floods, poor people suffer most acutely because they have fewer options open to them to cope. They tend to get into heavier debt and have to sell their assets, like livestock, at knockdown prices. They often have to forego medicines, school fees, and meals in order to get by.
‘Widespread increases in heavy precipitation have been observed even in places where total amounts have decreased,’ says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report. What this sober assessment means, in human terms, is that Jane Ajojo and Liywalii Liywalii, and millions like them, start rebuilding their lives again, poorer than before.
An excerpt from the Oxfam report “Suffering the Science: Climate Change, People and Poverty”: